Attacks on U.S., airstrikes hurt Arab nations' tourism

Economic damage leads to drop in war support

November 04, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CAIRO - Hassan Metwally is desperate to welcome an American.

Like many in the Arab world, he doesn't trust the U.S. government, but he is willing to negotiate. After all, he is a merchant in the ultimate bazaar, the famous Khan El-Khalili.

Looking out from a nook where tea is served and water pipes are smoked for relaxation, he recalls how he used to see thousands of tourists this time of year, the high season.

This year, however, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, tourism in Egypt has nearly dried up.

The attacks and the continuation into a fourth week of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime are having a negative effect on Egypt's economy and the economies of other Arab nations. This, in turn, is influencing domestic politics and eroding support for the war.

Metwally, 36, a perfume and gold jewelry shopkeeper, says he likes Americans, and for good reason. He acknowledges that without dollars from American tourists, he cannot provide for his wife and three children. "We're going to starve," he said, summing up his family's plight unless things improve soon.

While U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated this week that the Afghan war will be "a marathon," the coalition of moderate Arab countries supporting the United States is showing signs of strain, said analysts and Western sources.

Few Egyptians expected the bombing campaign to last this long, and few have the financial reserves to remain afloat during a protracted war. This is especially the case in Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan, where the national economies are heavily dependent on American and European tourists.

Arab coverage of the Afghanistan war has been quite graphic, and the approach of Ramadan, a holy month in Islam that will start in the middle of this month, has led many Arab countries to demand a cease-fire.

Both trends incite distress, and Arab leaders have become more critical of Washington over its perceived pro-Israeli policy. "The bombing has gone on for too long. This whole thing is starting to look like a blind war," said Walid Kazziha of American University in Cairo.

Egypt and other Arab countries, one Western diplomat said, "made it clear that they want this to be a short ... campaign, and this is the still the case. The Afghanistan problem is causing a lot of strain."

"We hope the Americans will realize their goals as soon as possible," Osama el Baz, adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, told foreign journalists. "We believe the coalition should avoid any operation in Ramadan."

In Jordan, where tourism is the chief economic engine, hotels are empty, and longtime tourism agents have begun layoffs.

A Jordan Times editorial last week addressed "the rising threat beneath" the war, which "is being viewed by more and more desperate people as a war between civilizations and religions."

In Lebanon, foreign investment has come to a virtual halt. The yearlong struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians has also scared away investors.

"The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan is making the situation just more tense," said Nabil Khalaf, 36, owner of a computer and office supply store who has seen orders evaporate. "People just don't want to invest."

The Lebanese are particularly concerned because they fear the United States will next pursue Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Through a protracted campaign of suicide bombings, Hezbollah successfully brought about the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

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